Thursday, March 30, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: If You’re Going to Break Limited POV, Do It Early, Often Enough, and Briefly

So let’s talk more about breaking limited 3rd-person POV.

I recently read a revised manuscript that I thought worked much better than the original. In the original, we began with our heroine’s 3rd-person POV, and went with that for several chapters (covering many years), then we switched to the love interest’s POV. The next chapter had the love interest’s name at the top to let us know we had switched, then it had several chapters from that POV, going back and re-covering some of the same ground as the earlier chapters, then surpassing it. Then we returned to the heroine’s POV for a few chapters, then we switched to a villain’s POV, once again with that character’s name atop the chapter, stayed there for a while, moved around in time, then returned to the heroine.

I didn’t think this worked. We stayed with our heroine long enough that it was jarring and alienating when we switched POV, then it was jarring all over again when we started jumping around in time in the new POV, then, just when we had gotten settled in to the new POV, we returned. Then, just when we were secure again in the heroine’s shoes, we jumped again to a third POV.

I recommended eliminating the other POVs, but the author tried something else. After only two chapters with the hero, we jump away to the villain for one quick chapter. Then we’re back with the hero for several chapters, then we cut away to the love interest earlier and more briefly, then back to the heroine. We keep cutting away to one of these two occasionally for short chapters. These chapters didn’t have headers saying that we were adopting a new POV, I just had to figure that out from the first sentence which began with the new character’s name.

I thought this actually worked great. That early cut-away conditioned me to accept that we would occasionally and briefly break identification with the heroine, then return. Because the cutaways were more frequent, it was no longer necessary to jump around in time to re-cover earlier ground. Everything was pretty linear.

Let’s return again to “Game of Thrones”, which does something like the first version. Why does it work there, and not here? Because that’s an epic, taking place over several continents, with no one hero. This book, on the other hand, has one clear heroine, and we don’t want to spend too long away from her. If we’re going to cut away to other limited 3rd-person POVs, we’re going to want to do so early (before we’re permanently settled in), often enough not to establish a pattern, and briefly.


Mark said...

I dunno - I'm still having trouble with this advice similar to what Harvey, James, and others mentioned in the last post.

Obviously this is not the same thing at all as the novel that Matt is mentioning, but the first book that comes to my mind is THE SOUND AND THE FURY, which is comprised of 4 parts - 3 in first person narrated by three different character, the 4th in 3rd person (mostly) limited about a fourth main character.

As I said - clearly Faulkner is doing something different from the novel Matt was discussing, but the structure he employs (brilliantly) makes me very wary of a "rule" like "if you're going to break limited POV, do it early, often enough, and briefly". I can't think of a good example off hand, but I'm having images in my mind of novels in which the narration or POV switches cleanly down the middle of the novel, as well.

Sure - these shifts can be jarring, as Matt says, but frequently, that is precisely the point. The author is trying to jar the reader and make them think about how they have been identifying (or not) with the main protag so far.

James Kennedy said...

In James Joyce's ULYSSES, chapters 1-3 are from Stephen Dedalus' POV. Then for chapters 4-17 they are mostly from Leopold Bloom's POV, although there is quite a bit of slippage of POV into other characters, especially in chapter 10. The final chapter 18 is from Molly Bloom's POV. Joyce pulls it off.

Philip Pullman's THE GOLDEN COMPASS seems to be pretty firmly third person limited based in Lyra, but every once in a while, without fuss, she's not in a scene, and there are two adults talking about her. Pullman pulls it off.

The gradual transference of POV from Fern to Wilbur is part of what gives the book such a huge emotional payoff. We have total access to Fern's thoughts and feelings at the beginning when she loves Wilbur, but later on when she doesn't care too much about Wilbur, we are shut out of her subjectivity, and that's part of why it's so melancholy.

With sufficient artfulness, anything is possible, and new effects can be discovered. Get bogged down in too many rules like this and you might write "correctly" but nobody will care about what you write, you'll never make anything fresh or exciting.

James Kennedy said...

P.S. The third example is of CHARLOTTE'S WEB, obviously. Forgot to type that.

Matt Bird said...

If I can make every book more comprehensible than Ulysses, then I'll have done my job.

James Kennedy said...

James Joyce is a genius. If immediate comprehensibility is your end-all and be-all, I think you and I part ways in our opinion of what constitutes literature.

Mark said...

Matt's comment made me laugh out loud, but I have to agree with James. I'm happy to talk about the (in)comprehensibility of Joyce, but the pertinent point to this post is that Joyce's large-scale POV choices have very little to do with his comprehensibility. The movement from Stephen to Bloom to Molly is completely legible and makes perfect sense for the narrative structure of the novel.

Jonathan Auxier said...

I feel like citing Joyce in a story conversation is an aesthetic version of Godwin's Law.

Anonymous said...

Ok, so since Godwin’s Law says mentioning Hitler makes everything you say wrong, citing Joyce makes everything you say … unaesthetic?

James Kennedy said...

I think, at least when considering novels and not movies, we need to make allowances for "storytellers" that switch the POV much more freely than what you allow here.

For instance, I just finished re-reading MRS. FRISBY AND THE RATS OF NIMH. It starts from the mouse Mrs. Frisby's 3rd person limited POV for the first 100 pages. Then it switches to the 1st-person POV of Nicodemus the Rat as he is tells a story to Mrs. Frisby for about 50 pages. 50 pages! It's a pretty radical move to switch the POV like that after 100 pages in, and for so long!

After those 50 pages of Nicodemus, it takes a break for about 10 pages back in Mrs. Frisby's POV, but then it's back to Nicodemus' first-person storytelling POV for another 20 pages, and then the last 50 pages is from Mrs. Frisby's POV.

Weird structure! It's neither early, nor often, nor brief. But this book has satisfied generations of kids, and won a Newbery Medal. Would it be improved by tidying up those gigantic chunks of Nicodemus strewn around the middle of the book? Nope. I found it thrilling when I read it as a kid, and still love it.

A less extreme but perhaps still instructive examples is PRINCE CASPIAN. The first 35 pages are from the limited perspective of the Pevensie kids. Then pages 37-95 -- that is, about 60 pages, about a quarter of the book! -- are being "told" by Trumpkin the dwarf, about events that happened long ago, but those pages don't read in Trumpkin's voice, but rather they are from Prince Caspian's limited 3rd-person POV. Then the last 120 or so pages are from the POV of the Pevensie kids again, basically.

I think it's easier and more common for a book to get away with this "storytelling" structure.

If you want an adult example that's even more obnoxious than Joyce, Proust's SWANN'S WAY first 200 pages ("Overture" and "Combray") are from the 1st person POV of our nameless narrator; then the next 215 pages ("Swann in Love") is an omniscient narrator telling the story of Swann, from long before the nameless narrator was even born; the last 50 pages ("Place-Names: The Name") are back from the 1st person POV of our nameless narrator.

TL;DR I'm suspicious of these hard-and-fast rules. Novels can get away with more than you might think. And the most interesting, worthwhile classics break these POV rules all the time.

Mark said...

James - Mrs. Frisbee is a *great* example because Nicodemus's story is 1) absolutely crucial to the novel, 2) absolutely gripping (for me as a child, my favorite part of book), and yet 3) absolutely required to be subordinate to the main story of Mrs. Frisbee. Also, I think your two examples of children's books are really great evidence for our shared thesis because it shows that even (literally) less mature readers have no problem with these POV shifts. Personally, I'm pretty confident that the right kind of Hollywood movie could get away with this as well (I can think of plenty of examples of "art" movies that shift POV in this way, but can't think of a good mainstream example off hand--maybe some of those 40s noirs where we get a huge honkin' flashback in the center?).

This is perhaps coming close to what you and Matt were discussing on the Dialogue podcast, but maybe at least part of the issue here is that you and I are talking about stories that are not *necessarily* conforming to Matt's "hero solving a large problem" structure. Obviously Mrs. Frisbee fits well within Matt's concept, but many of our other examples are stories where the "milieu" (as you put it) is more important than the presumed hero or his problem. Obviously Matt allows that such stories exist and can succeed, but I think we're saying that readers and viewers of all stripes are much more tolerant/interested/even intrigued by these stories than Matt seems to think.

James Kennedy said...

Mark, totally. And I shudder to consider how this book would've been butchered, if a well-meaning rules-following editor had said, "Hey Robert, great first draft, love the superintelligent rats. A few notes... First, whose story is this really? Mrs. Frisby or the rats'? Do we really need it to be about Mrs. Frisby? Why can't you just have it be about the rats from the beginning, doesn't that structure make more sense? I mean, a story is about the solving of a large problem, but you can't seem to choose which problem -- is this about Mrs. Frisby's problem moving her house, or the rats' problem escaping NIMH and making a new life for themselves? Pick a lane, buddy!"

That would've been more correctly structured according to Matt's rules. And it wouldn't have been nearly as good.